The origins of the Northern Polytechnic (for which an earlier suggested name was the Northern Technical and Recreative Institute) lay in the Charity Commissioners' scheme of the 1880s to develop a network of polytechnics modelled on the Regent Street Polytechnic (now part of the University of Westminster). The Northern Polytechnic Institute in Holloway, North London, designed by Mr Charles Bell, FRIBA, opened its doors to students on 5th October 1896. Its mission was "to promote the industrial skill, general knowledge, health and well-being of young men and women ... (and) ... the means of acquiring a sound General, Scientific, Technical and Commercial Education at small cost."
Funds for the setting-up of the Polytechnic came from an annual maintenance grant from the City Parochial Foundation (c. £1,500 p.a.), a substantial donation from the Clothworkers' Company (c. £17,500) plus individual donations (totalling c. £13,500).
In the first year, one thousand students enrolled on courses ranging from English, Mathematics and Chemistry to machine construction, plumbing, dressmaking and millinery, mostly as evening classes. By 1900, the number of students had doubled and by 1911 five-year evening degrees were available, recognised by the University of London. It changed its name to the Northern Polytechnic c1925.
From the beginning of the 20th century, the Polytechnic's Great Hall was a well-patronised centre of local entertainment. It opened in July 1897 with seating for 1,300 and a very fine organ provided by Mr H.A. Tufnell (of the family that gives Tufnell Park its name) who was a member of the first Governing Body of the Polytechnic. There were regular programmes offered by the Polytechnic's Operatic Society, its Modern Symphony Orchestra and its Repertory Company from as early as 1912 until the 1980s. The repertoires of all the companies were extensive and the performances - according to newspaper cuttings of the time - were of a high standard. These were all popularly supported until the advent of television when audiences gradually began to fall away but in its heyday performances, particularly those of the Operatic Society, were such a success that in addition to covering their costs significant amounts were raised for charitable causes including a total of £2,000 during the First World War for war-time charities.
The Northern Polytechnic introduced polymer science courses at the turn of the 20th century and developed an expertise in rubber technology. In 1948 the Northern Polytechnic was appointed as the National College of Rubber Technology, where it enjoyed a strong reputation for teaching and research. In 1982 the College merged with the Polytechnic of the South Bank's Polymer School to form the PNL (later UNL) School of Polymer Technology.
On 26 January 1971, as more polytechnics were designated, it was decided that the Northern and North Western polytechnics should merge to form the Polytechnic of North London (PNL), which then had its degrees awarded by the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA).